Ilm al Kaff

Chiromancy is also thought to have been known and practiced amongst early Arabic culture as well. That the practice of physiognomy or 'Firasa' was known to the Arabs is attested to by several references within the Koran (eg XLVII.30) which shows the general acceptance of the idea that the outer form of the body reveals the inner state of the person. There is also a legal precedent for the use of physiognomy within Islam, for the Koran also records that physiognomy is a useful tool in the settlement of paternity and genealogical disputes. Given the relation between chiromancy and physiognomy it would be surprising if ancient Arabic culture knew nothing of the significance of hands, particularly since there is so much evidence to point to an Arabic source for the European interest in hands that began from the twelfth century.

Several Arabic terms are given for the study of the hand: Ilm al Kaff is the term used for the study of the hand as a whole whilst Ilm al Asarir is the word for chiromancy or the study of the lines of the hands. T Fahd, in his work 'La Divination Arabe' of 1966, reports that he found the terms used in a verse of poetry dating from the sixth century AD by one Maymun b. Qays al Asa, who was a contemporary of the Prophet Muhammed. Fahd also reports that many Arabic authors considered that chiromancy was a subject in which Arabs (and Hindus) were especially adroit. But despite this, the evidence for chiromantic practice in Arabic cultures at this time is extremely scant and there are very few manuscripts available today which reveal the extent of chiromantic knowledge in this part of the world.

One text that does survive dates only from the ninth century AD, but even this does not turn out to be a recension of an authentic Arabic tradition of chiromancy for it reveals that it is a translation from an earlier Greek work by the sophist Polemon of Laodicia (d.144AD). Other early manuscripts are cited as referring to Indian sources for the origin of Arabic chiromancy. Arabic manuscripts on chiromancy are known to be held in the Vatican library (Ms 938.14), at Istanbul (Ms Koprulu 1601) and in Beirut (Fac Or Ms 271 no.579). The last of these is entitled 'Firasat al Kaff', from which we might deduce that it is more a physiognomical treatise on the hand. Along with the passages from the Koran, this might suggest that early Arabic studies of the hand were predominantly chirognomical than chiromantical. However, all these manuscripts are undated and may well be very much later works. One such set of Arabic chiromantic treatises kept in Berlin (Ms Ahlwardt 4255-8) cites European authors such as Aquinas and Albertus Magnus, which therefore dates them from the late thirteenth or even the fourteenth century at the earliest. Although we have enough clues here to clearly demonstrate that some form of chiromancy was known in early Arabic culture, we also have insufficient evidence to be able to detail its precise nature and content.


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